Will the 2012 campaign be a record for lies – and charges of lying?

The Romney and Obama campaigns have lately traded charges of lying – and lying about lying. Big money will add to the high number of false campaign ads. Is there a rub-off on Americans who might see lying as justified?

AP Photo
This is a frame grab from a recent Romney campaign ad.

Both the Romney and Obama campaigns have lately accused each other of spreading lies in negative campaign ads. Over the history of presidential politics, there’s no big news in that.

But with a possible $2 billion or more being spent on political ads in the next three months, might so much public lying only encourage Americans to lie in daily life?

Many experts on lying, such as Sissela Bok and Dan Ariely, have worried about the cumulative effects of lying by those in public life, especially politicians. It sends social signals that lying is justified. Democracy, which relies on accurate information, would falter with a slow erosion of trust that such lying causes.

“Every violation of truth is not only a sort of suicide in the liar, but is a stab at the health of human society,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Truth is the best disinfectant for political lies. But even with so many campaign fact-checkers for the 2012 election – such as FactCheck.org, Politifact.com, or even Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert – it can be difficult for voters not to be overwhelmed by untruths and half-truths in repetitive negative ads. A lie repeated enough times often seems true.

A study of two weeks of campaign ads ending July 9 found about 89 percent of President Obama’s ads carried an anti-Romney message and 94 percent of Mitt Romney’s ads contained an anti-Obama message, according to New York-based Kantar Media’s CMAG. Many contained falsehoods or charges of lying.

And unlike recent presidential campaigns, the 2012 race will be marked by big spending from wealthy groups working on behalf of candidates. Such groups will likely be held less accountable for making spurious charges, distortions, or misrepresentations.

Charges about lying in ads are almost as common now as the alleged lies. One Romney ad says that Obama ads claiming Mr. Romney shipped jobs overseas while at Bain Capital are “patently false.” Another ad shows Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2008 accusing Mr. Obama of lying about her.

The Obama campaign claims Romney is lying about his time at Bain, saying in an ad, “if that’s the case, and he was lying to the American people, that’s a real character and trust issue.”

Campaigns that distort issues and damage the reputations of candidates can alienate voters and keep them ill-informed. The effect could be that policy decisions by government will be manipulated by special interests for their own benefit.

Those running for public office must be held to high standards of truthfulness. Their reputation is like a public good. And their deceit can be highly damaging – think of Watergate and the Monica Lewinsky scandal – especially if everyone starts to think “everyone does it.”

Voters must not condone lying by candidates. Otherwise there is a risk of mass self-deception and democracy is derailed.

“Every person must be his own watchman for truth,” stated a 1988 Supreme Court decision, “because the forefathers did not trust any government to separate the true from the false for us.”

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